TACOMA – A judge Friday granted a state Republican Party request to block the counting of hundreds of recently discovered King County ballots in Washington’s the state’s incredibly close governor’s race.
Pierce County Superior Court Judge Stephanie Arend’s decision hinged on whether it was simply too late for counties to reconsider ballots from the November election, even if such ballots were erroneously rejected by election workers.
From reading state law and state Supreme Court decisions, “it is clear to me that it is not appropriate to go back and revisit decisions on whether ballots should or should not be counted,” Arend said.
State Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt said the party would appeal the decision.
“We’re going to fight for every vote to count in the state of Washington,” he said. “I guess we’re headed to the (state) Supreme Court.”
King County Elections Director Dean Logan said the county also planned to appeal.
“These are legitimate voters who cast legitimate ballots,” he said. “It’s just a travesty if we do not include these ballots.”
Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander said the high court is prepared to take up the case next week if an appeal is filed.
“If and when something is filed, we will talk about setting a hearing date next week,” he said. “Every day is up for grabs, except, I guess, Christmas Eve, which is a state holiday this year.
“We’re conscious of the need to move with all deliberate speed on this.”
Republican Dino Rossi won the Nov. 2 election over Democrat Christine Gregoire by 261 votes in the first count and by 42 after a machine recount of the 2.9 million votes.
State Republican Party spokeswoman Mary Lane said the judge made the right decision for Washington state.
“If King County were allowed to keep adding more ballots, elections would never end,” Lane said.
As for those whose ballots aren’t counted, she said: “That is King County’s fault. We cannot be held responsible for the fact that King County made a mistake.”
Friday afternoon, with all but King County reporting results of the hand recount, Rossi had picked up eight net votes over Gregoire – for an overall lead of 50 votes.
Jack Oxford is one of the voters whose ballots Arend said should not be counted.
“She said, ‘Jack, your vote doesn’t count,’ ” said Oxford, 50, an electrical field supervisor from Enumclaw.
“I’m very upset, very distressed,” he said.
King County officials and Democrats had wanted to include 723 newfound ballots in the hand recount, saying they are valid ballots that were mistakenly rejected because of county workers’ errors.
But Republicans went to court, saying it was too late.
Specifically, Republicans were granted a temporary restraining order to stop election workers from taking the newly discovered ballots out of their outer envelopes, which bear the voter’s signature.
County elections officials had said ballots would not be separated from their security envelopes until the lawsuit was decided.
Party observers and reporters watched Friday morning as King County election workers searched for more mistakenly rejected ballots, and found 150 to add to the 573 identified earlier in the week.
As a King County sheriff’s deputy stood guard, a county worker unlocked the floor-to-ceiling cage that surrounded hundreds of trays of ballots kept in a south Seattle warehouse. Four workers silently flipped through plastic trays and pulled out ballots coded “no signature on file.”
Bill Huennekens, King County elections superintendent, said the 150 ballots, like the 573 found earlier this week, were mistakenly rejected because there was a problem with how the voters’ signatures had been scanned into the county’s computer system. County workers should have checked for a paper signature to verify the ballot during the original count, but instead they were put in the reject pile.
Officials discovered the mistake Sunday, when County Councilman Larry Phillips found his name on a list of rejected ballots and complained.
On Monday and Tuesday, county workers searched and found 573 mistakenly rejected ballots. Officials later noticed that none of those ballot envelopes contained names beginning with the letters A or B, and only two started with C. That prompted Friday’s search.
The trays containing ballots from voters with last names beginning with A, B and C were apparently overlooked because they were under other trays, Huennekens said.
“It is a serious mistake we made, but we are going to do the right thing for the citizens of King County,” Huennekens said. “We’ve conducted this election in an open and transparent manner. We’re not trying to hide anything.”
State GOP spokesman Chris Vance called those ballots “very suspicious.”